Cooking in films like Big Night or Babette's Feast has been something of a joyful expression, a way of lustily embracing life head-on. But the German film Mostly Martha makes cooking slightly more problematic.
Martha (Martina Gedeck) is a brilliant chef in an upscale Hamburg restaurant who spends her time on the psychiatrist's couch describing perfect meals of roasted pigeon cooked in a pig's bladder and served in a delicate thyme sauce alongside ravioli accented with chanterelles and truffles.
It doesn't take a psychoanalyst to figure out that Martha is lacking something in the fulfillment department as she channels all of her emotional energies into food. Mostly Martha brings the fun of foodie-themed movies to bear on the slightly less fun issues raised in women's melodramas where a damaged lass with communication problems must learn to heal herself, generally with a hot compress of beefcake.
That beefcake arrives just in time as Martha goes through a sudden cataclysm in her personal life. When her sister dies in a car accident, leaving behind 8-year-old daughter Lina (Maxime Foerste), Martha is suddenly forced to evaluate her skills as a nurturer and people-person next to her talents as a gourmet.
Just as Martha's traumatic new home life starts to take its toll, sensual, fun-loving Italian sous chef Mario (Sergio Castellitto) enters her orderly kitchen -- and eventually her knickers -- to help her loosen up.
The tension initially festers between spicy Mario and chilly Martha, the latter bristling at this intrusion of another culinary sensibility into her well-oiled kitchen. Unlike sensualist Mario, Martha is a perfectionist who bickers with a "barbarian" customer about the proper preparation of foie gras and keeps her apartment kitchen as orderly as a hot zone lab. The force that brings Martha and Mario together is not food, but flesh -- namely Lina, who won't touch Martha's elaborately prepared lamb but slurps up Mario's earthy spaghetti with roasted red peppers.
And it seems that uptight, repressed, German Martha could use some supping at lusty Mario's hot plate of love, too. Martha must learn to embrace Mario's authenticity and earthiness in a time-worn scenario that has been repeated in melodramas from All That Heaven Allows, where a suburban widow must shuck society's restraints for a nature-loving woodsman, to Terms of Endearment, where a Southern priss has her propriety short-sheeted by a bad boy astronaut. Many will bristle at first-time director Sandra Nettelbeck's concession to the timeworn cliches of women's films as well as the generally cutesy-pie contrivances of the plot, like the way Martha hyperventilates at the sight of her messy kitchen after sloppy Mario has had his way with it.
Mostly Martha is a well-appointed film with the kind of engaging performances, pretty settings, attractive people and amusing situations that make for ideal international cross-over material. Like a well-cooked meal, every detail has been brought to bear to make the film a pleasant and smooth experience through ample application of a modern jazz soundtrack and the warm, buttery lighting that renders all things seductive and prosperous -- like the interior of an expensive boutique.
Mostly Martha may entice an art house-lite audience that likes to have its romance spiced with the esoterica of haute cuisine. For an audience that quivers at the sight of rosemary- and pepper-infused jars of extra virgin olive oil and gets all hot and bothered surveying arcane Williams-Sonoma equipment like ravioli crimpers and lemon zesters, Mostly Martha might just hit the spot.